What is the purpose of homework?

What is the purpose of homework? Why do so many kids suffer from homework anxiety? Why do we teachers assign so much homework?

Last year, one of my favorite students' father wrote all the teachers a note through our online communication system. The note went something like this (all in capital letters):

"Why do you teachers assign so much homework? There is no need for my daughter to do 5h of homework every night. She stays up every night until very late and then can't concentrate in school. I can't stand seeing her with bags under her eyes. Stop assigning useless homework!"

I had to laugh. I really don't assign a lot of homework, and therefore I just ignored the note and laughed some more. When the student came in to school the next day, she appologized to me for her father's note, as weh because she doesn't get much homework from my class. I guess I really don't assign a lot of homework.

Let me prefice this discussion with a bit of where I'm coming from. I am a high school math and science teacher. I do assign homework for practice, but not only.

When I went to school (high school and university - here homework wasn't checked on a regular basis like in junior high and elementary), I would do the minimum amount of homework necessary. Yet, somehow I always got awesome grades and the teachers loved me. I really streamlined the homework and focused on what was important the given night. I did pull a few all-nighters, and crammed right before the exam a lot. When I look back at my youthful days, I think how silly I was, how wasteful I was. I took education for granted, and didn't learn to my full potential. But possibly, doing everything assigned to me was just not possible! With the bombardment of assignments from every class, maybe it just wasn't possible to do ALL the homework!? Maybe my method of picking and choosing was the only way to go - after all I was an A student!

So I ask again - why do we bother assigning homework?

Here are a few reasons I assign homework:

1. To let students practice what they learned. This is very important when teaching a subject to a room full of students who are trying to finish their business or IT security degree who are required to take math, physics or chemistry. There are concepts that can be learned, but skills need to be practiced to become an expert. Ideally, this practice could be done at school, in the class, so that students could have the opportunity to ask me questions if they get stumped. However, the reality is that there is never enough time for practice in the classroom. Very often, I feel as if I'm running out of time, that I won't cover all the material unless I hurry up. In fact, a lot of the time, the curricula are so packed, so crammed, that there is no time for practice in the classroom, and homework must be assigned. However, I find that some teachers over-practice concepts, and students start disliking the discipline, just because of the monotony of the exercises. Too much practice is also no good! There needs to be a balance.

2. To let students investigate on their own, learn how to find answers to questions, show that the teacher does not have an answer to everything. Many times, I get students to do research as homework. I ask them a question, a topic, and they have to come back with an answer. This usually comes out in discussion. For instance, if as a class we are having a discussion on a subject a little bit off topic, yet still relevant and interesting, and a student asks 'How does that work?". Instead of rejecting their question, or answering it on the spot, I tend to go to the "Find out yourself and share with us tomorrow" strategy. This works really well, because the student actually asked the question, and therefore might be actually interested in finding out.

Another time I assign research as homework is when the topic of study has a lot of info/knowledge, if the subject is very detailed, but not all the information is necessarily required to be regurgitated. This is the perfect time to get students working on their own, using their research skills to understand a topic up close. On top of that, the "sharing with the rest of the class" part has great benefits and excellent learning opportunities in itself.

Again, just like with the "practice-type" homework, "research-type" homework could be done in class time, but if class-time is limited, homework is the only option.

3. To finish mundane things that class time didn't permit. I use this type of homework especially for writing up labs. I let the students do the lab in class, take down the observations, think about it, discuss the results. However the write-up of the lab is always exclusively done at home. Again this is more of a left-over from class, but I cannot find a reason for spending class time for such a mundane thing. I guess I find class-time too precious. But really, isn't time at home also supposed to be precious?

4. To let students build, work as a team, on their own time, with their own schedule. I like to assign projects as homework. This allows students to work on their own time, to plan out how much effor they need to put in. A lot of the time, projects are done in groups, and just because of that, there is a need to learn cooperation. Because of these projects, many times strong friendships are built. (Some of my best friends today I met when I had to choose a group for a group project at school.) The students have to plan to meet outside of class, in their own homes. They have to learn to work together, to split up a job into individual parts. All of these skills are essential in real life and I think this type of homework is the best type of homework. It cannot be done at school, because if I gave solely class-time to work on a project, this would take away from the "self-discipline" of making individualized sub-deadlines and the "self-pacing" of working on a project together with a group. Inevidibly, some groups would be done sooner than others, and then I would have to either waste time for some groups or cut the precious time for others. Working on a group project is not the left-overs from a class - it is the ultimate type of homework.

Recently I started to run math and science workshops. I see the kids once a week for an hour or two. Each session is paid for. In this case, I cannot see myself letting the kids just go onto the computer and do research for me - for that precious hour. When the students are with me, they want to learn, actively, but learn! They don't want to practice, they don't want to research on their own. They have me, they want to take advantage of me. But is school like these workshops? Am I that precious at school? Or is it that the students see me so much, that they need a break once in a while to do the practice, do the mundane, have a research class?

Initially I thought as a teacher I had to be always "on", presenting a new topic, doing some sort of fun activity, doing a lab. Nowadays, I think that some classes are supposed to be more of the "homework" types of classes. In that way I can somewhat relax, but most importantly I can take the burden off of the students - I let them do the practice in class, let them have their evening to themselves, the precious time at home can be spent on what they want, and not the left-overs from my classroom.

It's just too bad that I can't afford to give no homework at all!

Keywords: 
homework, school
Submitted by bogusia on Sun, 11/30/2008 - 05:02

Hope you liked the post. Please do me a favour ...

Leave a Comment Subscribe to Feed

Comments

I teach elementary, so I agree most of all with your first point. I think that in everything we do, practice makes perfect. That goes for playing the piano, excelling at baseball, and mastering math.

One other reason to assign homework might also be for the parents' sake -- so they can see what their children are doing at school and give the kids a chance to explain what they are learning with some examples.

Yes, that is so true. I also tutor, and when the student doesn't get any homework, it's hard to know what is taught in class. With homework, there is much more control from the parents/tutors/home side of things. I like that!

Thanks for the comment!

I tend to go to the "Find out yourself and share with us tomorrow" strategy. This works really well, because the student actually asked the question, and therefore might be actually interested in finding out.

I definitely agree with this. Also if you have a takehome assignment, it makes you conditioned that learning is not only done at school but everywhere including your bedroom. Learning is not boxed in a classroom.

Not boxed in a classroom HA...HA...HA NO YOUR BOXED IN YOUR OWN HOME BRAINIAC!

Homework sucks but the aim is to get the student a research ability that would enable him to level up his resourcefulness.

Indeed, practice makes perfect, but if you're in a system like Eastern Europe for example, education tends to focus more on repetition and memorizing rather than thought and imagination, which I believe should be more important.

I agree that thought and imagination is important, but repetition and memorization are also very important, especially at the beginning, when kids are just learning the basics.  I'm not sure if Eastern Europe is a good example any more.  I have some recent math books from Poland, and they are completely NEW in terms of teaching the math.  The whole world is going into the "new way of teaching", especially math.  Teaching by making the kids learn, construct their own meaning, instead of memorizing and repetition, as was the custom before.  Thanks for the comment.

i teach music and hesitate to use the phrase "practice makes perfect". practice only makes habit. only perfect practice makes perfect. to this end, i think it is imperative that we do everything we can to make sure a student understands something before we ask them to practice it alone.

Great point. And thus I think if we could do the homework at school would be the best alternative... Doing leftovers at home, or even worse, practicing the wrong thing at home and engraving the wrong thing into our malleable brain is useless, and counter-productive.

if you do homework in class, it;s classwork

The importance of homework is for the students to learn and briefly understand what they have been taught.

Agree with you. Homework just makes the parents more comfortable.

Actually my parents are arguing over it.

I feel that if you do your work in class, you should be able to get it. If you don't get it you can always ask the teacher.

I agree with you. I find that students however don't use time efficiently in class. They prefer to chat with their friends (understandable, as I was a student at one point in my life). But if all students did their work in class, then homework would be minimal in the courses I teach. And on top of that, they can ask me questions while they're at school... there is no such luxury at home.

So I agree with you completely.

I also tutor, and when the student doesn't get any homework, it's hard to know what is taught in class. With homework, there is much more control from the parents/tutors/home side of things.

Kids would cry if they were reading your article! Anyways, from my personal experience, it has sometimes happened to me to not understand anything while the professor was teaching in class, and to only understand after doing my homework. This became almost an absolute truth once I got into university.

Homework is thus also a way to reflect upon what was done in class at the student's own pace. Very true. Great comment!

I think the most important thing about homework is that it installs discipline in children, and makes them realise that life isn't all about playing in sandcastles.

But seriously, why can't life be all about playing in sandcastles?

Because not all of us are capable of getting information in and have the ability to retain it. Homework is like a retention tool that will help one remember better. Personally, I am at the beach with you.

if you feel that way i respect it but considering the fact that u like homework we will never be alike i am in 8th grade and i seriously dont like homework all the kids in my grade love or heath teacher he doesnt believe in homework if we dont get something done we do it in homeroom or in class the next day u rock Mr....... yeah enough said

I think the purpose of homework is to give students a chance to practice the material! Practice makes perfect...

I'm a sophomore (10th grader in high school) who's supposed to be doing a paper on the history of china based on my "notes" from chapter 4 of my textbook back at school- which I didn't do because i fell asleep after doing 7 hours of homework last night. Instead, I was so outraged about it that I decided to look up why I have to do this work for the hell of it, and to clear some hot air off my head. I honestly and personally think that homework is a waste of time- because if you wanted to make something out of yourself, and if you;'re seriously committed into doing what you want to do in the future,you would take the time yourself to push your hobbies and time out of the way to get the information as much as possible- and it's really a question of morals. Look at all the work they assign at school, and look at the people now who went through the education process just as I am now- people who have a hard enough time living in this world (because even if education can get you to wherever you want to, it still won't turn you into a Bill Gates, Barack Obama or any other important figure used to set a example for the youth). True, it's possible to live successfully with the help of education being pushed into your face, but that will only be short-lived, as, like everything else in this world, everything's becoming more complicated- and it will one day reach to the point that education would be another word for "unnecessary procedure". Truth be told, I'm a slacker- yet I maintain a somewhat impressive skill in linguistics- yet I don't get it off of shoving "mi cara rosado" in a textbook for 8 hours a day- I take my time to read my own books of my own interests and choices instead of having to read anything that would increase my sleep time (as low as it is already, thanks to- well, you know what). I used to get calluses on my hand from writing so much, and it has in fact made my hand weaker and more fucked up to write, hence my chicken-scratch handwriting. I would have alot more to say, but my point has already been proven- if you are willing to make yourself a educated civilian, you would take YOUR own time to do what you got to do and gain your knowledge. If you just see life as a synopsis of exploration, skip the cliffs instead of books then. Because what more can fuel this economic crisis, depression statistics, and a brewing of a rebellious generation then wasted lectures of education.

Thanks for the heartfelt comment. I felt the same way when I went to school. I really did the minimum amount that would still be considered adequate. And now, when I'm a teacher, I realize a lot of students are like me. However, some are not. Some need the work to practice, to reinforce their skills. I however do not over do it, like I know some teachers do.

To your point that if you want to be an educated civilian, they you'll take on the responsibility yourself, and read on your own, etc. True, but just from my own experience, I find that sometimes if I'm not forced to do something (like in school), I just don't get around to doing it. I needed the push way more when I was a kid than now. Now I push myself, I learned. But when I was a teenager, I would do nothing I didn't have to - and I was one of the best kids in the school. It's unfortunately true, that kids need to be forced to do stuff, before they realize what they really want in life - and school is one way of making educated civilians even out of those many children that would prefer to do nothing all day.

Homework has some reasons, but I think that these days teachers are pushing the limit. School is not the most important thing, as you have pointed out, and if children / teens don't have time to do the other very important things (hobbies, sports, etc), because of the amount of homework, there is something wrong.

Tbh homework unless its revision is just a test all your doing is writing stuff down that you allready know during the time your supposed to be relaxing and giving yourself a break. Instead you cant enjoy yourself when your out because the mountain of homework sitting on your bed. I never do any homework and i dont care if the teacher punishes me because not doing homework hasnt effected my grades as ive allways been in the top sets and i have way above average grades. Anotger strange thing is that i properly hate school most teacher. And allways take days off school yet my grades have never been effected

Who are we kidding. Homework sucks... Kids don't do it, and I don't like to grade it. Yes, I too was the slacker who did the minimum, but read the "stuff" I was interested in... I read so much of the stuff I liked that I went on to study Physics because I LIKED IT (yes, I am one of the few), but it reinforces the point made earlier. Those who want to learn will learn, and those who don't...well, won't. I assign NO HOMEWORK...EVER... You should see the flack I get from other teachers, and I am not a newbie (58 years old). My students have a good time in my class...We play, and have fun... 78% of my students pass the advanced placement test without having done a lick of homework. Sure there are times when we don't finish the material and assigning homework would be great but then I would have to grade it!!!! I much rather cuss and discuss with my students and set up investigations to prove. I lead them and place roadblocks to where they shouldn't go (metaphorically).. My dad never assigned homework when he was teaching me how to fish, sail, ride a bike, etc... and "by golly" I learned how to do all those things.. So reiterate..Homework SUCKS!!! I AGREE -- California HS Physics teacher... : ) I am not telling you who I am.. I get enough flack at work....and if you are in my circle of influence, you'll recognize the writing style here... so there..

I love it! I agree completely. As I said in my post before, I assign minimal homework. There are two things I do give for homework though: 1. labs - the write up (which would suck up all my class time if I let them do it in class... plus some kids take more time to do these and others take less); 2. Projects. I think it's also important to give students choice. And you cannot give students choice without having them to work on it on their own time. For instance I love to give kids projects where they experience independent thinking, construction, research etc. This I think is done well as homework.

Thanks for the comment!

Homework also instills discipline and competitive preassure to perform adequatly. Two traits need to succed in the corporate world where most students will end up as adults.

Homework is like a review. I like answering homeworks since I remember my lessons more when I do them at home as well. They keep me alert rather than going home and watching TV and what have you.I really don't like school much because of the atmosphere of strictness and what have you. That's why I like homeworks since I can do it wherever I like and wherever I am comfortable.

Read the books by Alfie Kohn. He exposes myths and facts on Homework.

I think everyone here has missed the point of the father's letter. The dad's question was "Why do teacher's assigned TOO MUCH homework?" and not "Why do they assign homework?" I have to laugh at that and say that of all the teacher's who made a comment, none actually did it correctly!

As a mental health professional, I just hope that teachers consider collectively the amount of homework kids have. The amount of kids reporting homework to be a source of their anxiety, depression and suicidality is increasing. Many kids have 6, 7 or even 8 subjects a day and a different teacher for each class. If each teacher assigns them 20-30 minutes of homework a night that's 2-4 hours a night. Add in extracurricular activities and household responsibilities and possibly a job as well and that's quite a workload. I was fortunate enough to attend a school that switched to block scheduling when I was in HS. We went from 7 classes/day for 45-50 min worth a half credit per semester to 4 classes a day for about 1.5 hrs for a whole credit per semester. So we had longer in each class each day which resulted in less homework sent home and when homework did get sent home we had fewer subjects to complete it for. Plus we went from being able to earn 28 credits throughout four years of HS to 32. And it was more like the format of college as well, so it helped acclimate us for that future transition as well. I honestly believe all schools should do this. It made my life a lot easier and I actually learned and retained more because I got more of an in-depth education in each subject. I think our teachers liked it better as well, they weren't as rushed, they had less homework to check, etc.

That's a very good point. I taught both in Montreal and in Alberta. In Alberta, the high schools had the exact system you describe... only 4 subjects during a semester and this leads to less homework. On the other hand in Quebec, they had the standard system where there's 8 - 10 subjects per day, for the whole year, which inevitably leads to more homework. I never thought about it, but you are totally right. It really did seem that the Montreal students complained more of too much homework than in Alberta... I can't believe I never realized this before. Thanks for pointing it out! And I bet you're right... the smaller yet compact load of subjects is most likely the better way to go!

Yes, yes, yes! As a student, teachers simply don't realize the workload of all their combined work. Luckily, I am currently in one of those 4 period days and I don't get any homework from one of those classes. Even still, I get 2 hours of homework every night. Some of my teachers aren't making us review for homework, but learn new things. Let me tell y'all, homework might sound good in theory, but for the most part, it is useless. I go to a very nice school, and even here, most of the students are copying homework and doing it in the morning.
I have an AP class where we have 5 current events due every two weeks, and reading, worksheets, and long-term projects. It might help to know that I love school, I like to learn in all of my classes, but I hate homework. It is just that: work. If students need practice at home, they should study on their own and be responsible for their test grades. This is more independent, encourages responsibility, and is more secure in that there is less a chance of 'academic dishonesty.' Plenty of people with 8-hour jobs go home and relax after a day of work, but yet students are expected to continue their "jobs" at home and many of us are sleep-deprived, even though children need more sleep than adults. As was said, it absolutely causes anxiety. There have been nights when I just bawl because I have 6 hours of homework and tests to study for, and everything just can't get done, and my grades that I work hard for are mercilessly revoked. What happens when you tell a teacher? Most of the time, they don't care! I keep myself disconnected from teachers now; most of them don't care for me as any more than a student, and I will NOT care for them as anything more than a teacher. Don't get me wrong, I love and have loved many of my teachers, but most seem to see teaching as a job. Teachers interact and mold their students, so it it their responsibility to be the best they can, and many do not. For this (unfortunate) reason, I have no fear in allowing any of these teacher's to know how I feel about them. I have a right to favor or dislike anybody I like, and I will most certainly exercise that rights.

It may sound as though I'm digressing, and I probably am a little bit, but I'll bring it back to the point that homework is very impersonal. I honestly believe most teachers do not assign homework in the interest of the student, but rather because it is expected of the job. I learn best by creating natural connections and experiences with what I'm learning. For example, to remember which trailer I had math in,; I knew it was always 3 because it that number sounded more innately arithmetical to me. For this reason, homework often does not help ME learn the material. So in addition to doing the required work, I must study in a way that works for me. I don't think all teachers assign homework to hurt the students (psychologically), but it is a byproduct: an unintentional result. However, many students and parents express these concerns, yet nothing is done to fix them! This is why I think teacher's are responsible. Many of them seem to view their job as only that, and in that viewpoint, they neglect to see how their inconsiderate action are quite detrimental. Homework is absolutely cumulative, and many teachers are ignorant of this fact, as well as many others.

To epitomize my last thoughts, I will simply say that if teachers are to assign us work, it is obligatory that they are to grade it fairly, considerably, and respectfully. Some students have trouble and shouldn't be punished for this unless they don't seek resolution. I am pretty sick and tired of all my teachers giving me an hour of homework, but not checking or grading ANY of it. If you don't want to grade it, I don't want to do it. How is it fair to say that we should be given work, but teachers, getting paid to do a job, shouldn't have to grade the product of our work. Before you think, "but life isn't fair," or "tax-payers pay for your education; you think you deserve money for your work," remember that I said teachers mold their students. As we are maturing, if you leave an impression that the world isn't fair, you're only making it worse. There isn't an excuse for people to be rude and partial just because others have done it. I hold the door for people who don't hold it for me, and teachers shouldn't crush us with work just because that is what they experienced.

That's it. I'm sure nobody will ever read this, but if it saves a class or two, I'll be satisfied. As you can probably tell, I have strong beliefs, but I am willing to consider every side of the argument. I think homework absolutely has a place, but not for everyone. For mass education to work, it must be much more down-to-earth and individual, and so in my eyes, out currents system is very flawed. Thanks!

some time homework sucks no doubt but pluse point of doing homework is we got to know everything about the topic and have to do less hard-work in exam time

"if as a class we are having a discussion on a subject a little bit off topic, yet still relevant and interesting, and a student asks 'How does that work?". Instead of rejecting their question, or answering it on the spot, I tend to go to the "Find out yourself and share with us tomorrow" strategy."

From my experience as a student, this type of response to a questions would just tend to make me stop asking questions so as not to put an additional load of homework on myself. This was the case even if I was interested in something. Doesn't seem very motivational to respond to a child that shows interest in something to give him additional work and also the pressure of having to present his findings to the rest of the class (my worst nightmare).

You bring up a very good point. When I teach, I try to answer questions as well as I can, but I don't know everything... and learning how to find out answers is an important skill. But I see where you're coming from. I would probably be dissuaded myself if I was a student. I never liked talking in front of the class or getting more homework. I can't believe I've become a teacher that I wouldn't like myself. Thanks for the insight!

This is a whole load of bull. Homework sucks up your life. Usually pointless. Rediculus and un-neccicery punnishments if you dont complete it. And "On thier own schedual"? Dont make me laugh. You get a couple days then you HAVE to hand it in. Weather it applies to your schedual or not. So dont give me all this "its better for thier education" crap.  Because its not. Homework is rushed, hated, usually copied from the internet and never do the students actually learn from it as all they want to do is get it done and gone because they dont give jack all about it. :)